Skeptical reader: Andrew Keen's big ideas

On the last afternoon of the Supernova Conference, David Weinberger and fellow ZD Net blogger Andrew Keen, debated the question, "Disorder: Feature or Bug?" Unfortunately, they didn't actually manage to demonstrate a definitive answer to that question, because all we learned was that they disagreed.

On the last afternoon of the Supernova Conference, David Weinberger and fellow ZD Net blogger Andrew Keen, debated the question, "Disorder: Feature or Bug?" Unfortunately, they didn't actually manage to demonstrate a definitive answer to that question, because all we learned was that they disagreed. Chris Heuer took notes.

Keen, the author of The Cult of the Amateur, chose to deride everyone associated with Web 2.0 as wide-eyed Utopians and, particularly, assumed anyone The first principle borne out by the debate last Friday: Skepticism is essential with a question during the session was a kind of idiot pandering to the new order. In a post-session interview, he said people who disagree with him seek him out "because they always are looking for the anti-Christ." With all due respect, Andrew, you are hardly in that class of evil or intellectual, unless you think Simon Cowell is the most diabolical man on television. And, in that case, you are as guilty of soft-headedness as the people you criticize.

Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and author of the recently released Everything Is Miscellaneous, allowed himself to be painted in the role of utopian, failing to deflect Keen's characterizations of him as open to any idea with an uncritical acceptance that is apparently the signature of Web 2.0. Keen repeatedly contrasted himself with Weinberger, portraying his ideas as mission of the skeptic defending modernity against a horde of self-indulgent loudmouths.

The skeptic/Utopian dichotomy was the opening Weinberger should have exploited to undermine Keen's argument, because Weinberger himself is an accomplished skeptic. He has a Ph.D., one of the few things, besides a published book, that Keen acknowledged confers authority on a person. There would have been much more to talk about that afternoon, if the audience had been granted access to a real debate rather than authors, particularly Keen, who are chasing controversy in order to sell books.

So, why this late posting on a week-old subject? Because, for the most part, I agree with Keen's concerns without assigning the fault for the problems in a more egalitarian society to the rise of participation by the masses. There are plenty of examples on Wikipedia, for instance, of incorrect information outshouting the correct and verified truth, largely because some people believe they should challenge any authority. I have been a frequent critic of the intellectual laxity that is called Web 2.0, a marketing term that has run roughshod over the need for skeptical inquiry into its founding principles. And it took a few days to get hold of and read his book, in order to frame a response that adds to the discussion.

Keen wants to preserve a range of authorities from the 20th century—book publishers, television networks and movie studios—simply because they created the talent he sampled as a boy, learning from the experience what to value. He also seems extremely impressed with the mechanisms of 20th century media, especially the ability to market titles, which is typical of a first-time author who wants to believe that being published is a sign of distinction. It is only to the degree that

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your work survives the discussion that follows publications. Any bad or sensational idea can get press, but one that stands up to scrutiny is valuable.

Having published a few books, I'm over my bad self. Remember that philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein thought he would only write one book, his Tractacus Logico Philosphicus, which he said answered all questions in philosophy. He then had to revisit every question in the book in future books, only one of which he managed to get published in his lifetime—this is just to reiterate that hubris is a standing problem with first-time writers. It is also the case that the sales or literary promise shown many first books justify lots of follow-on poorly written books by the same author, which is a weakness of the system Keen celebrated at Supernova as the best and most efficient way to deliver talent to the market.

During the debate, I asked Weinberger and Keen to explain what principles they they agreed on, because it was clear they didn't agree about the value of Web 2.0. Chris Heuer reported:

Mitch Ratcliffe asked, “what are the things you can agree upon that will help us measure how well are we doing?” Andrew said they both share the same “social and political justice and ideals, but I am less optimistic about the flattened world bringing us to more democratization.” Andrew believes in hierarchies and taxonomies - Wikipedia is more or less right, but the problem is “that no single person is in charge of determining what is right.”

What these ideals of social and political justice are, Keen did not say. Nor did he explain how to judge experience against those principles. Instead, he dismissed the question. Keen, continued when I pressed the issue, mocking the question as a kind of Utopian "can't we all just get along" request for harmony.

Weinberger replied that he would need to have different criteria for every kind of document on the Web, which is missing the point.

Screw harmony. Out of disagreement comes real value and truth. Mocking ideas, especially when they are largely in line with your own, is showmanship at the expense of real debate. It pissed me off, so I bought Keen's book and read it. In coming posts, I hope to take it, Weinberger's and books by John Clippinger, Keith Sawyer and others, apart and examine them conclusion by conclusion. Perhaps Andrew Keen will join in, so that we can arrive at some principles on which a post-20th century media might grow.

This isn't a Utopian undertaking. It is an attempt to discover what will hold up from the era Keen sets up as the summit of culture (hence, his book's subtitle, "How today's Internet is killing our culture"), as well as the further past and from among the new ideas we're hearing—particularly the old ideas being recycled as new, because many people are not acknowledging their intellectual debts with any care.

Things are changing and will continue to change, as they always have. The media of the 20th century were not the high-water mark of human communication, rather they were simply a set of institutional and procedural systems that applied at the time. As a media conservative, Keen fails

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to acknowledge the temporary features of his time are just passing systems, and that, like every other era of change, this one will take ideas from the ancient past, the recent past and the future to revise the foundational principles of society.

The first principle I believe will survive is borne out by the debate last Friday: Skepticism is essential. Both participants do believe that and should have agreed publicly, rather than try to sustain a false disagreement to sell books. Keen was far more guilty of that, by the way.

When new systems of assembling knowledge are working, they are completely dependent on the application of skepticism. Wikipedia's substantive edits are debates between skeptics. That system fails when skepticism is abandoned in favor of cant or ideology. Likewise, blogosphere-wide debates are at their best when they focus on questioning and analysis of ideas rather than resorting to marketing strategies, such as repeating oneself until blue in the face in hopes your interlocutor will tire and leave.

Socrates demonstrated these same principles in the Classical Age, combining wit and intellect to overcome bad ideas, not his debating partners. A critically important problem with knowledge and politics today is the sense that winning must be total, instead of seeing through bad ideas to the people who we must live with once the debate is over.

Human knowledge--in the past and the present—has advanced on the application of skepticism. It simply happens faster and there are fewer gatekeepers to define who may participate, which means that skepticism about our peers is more important than in a time when media companies determined whose views would be dominant. A flatter market does not, as Keen suggests, need a single person to determine what is right, it needs everyone challenging those who do claim authority, as well as a system of acknowledging competence that is objectively assessable. Neither having friends who vouch for and reinstate your edits for you nor maintaining the loudest argument should be sufficient to arrive at the "truth."

Consider this the first of the "Skeptical Reader" series....